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Learning is Good but Failure is Better

I had always believed in that old saying ‘if you think education is costly, you don’t know how expensive ignorance is’. I could see a lot of truth in it and a recent incident confirmed it again. The other day our maid-servant came crying and asked me to explain how she had lost Rs.50000 to her moneylender without doing anything wrong. After listening to her story and making some calculation I explained her something on these lines. “You had borrowed Rs.5000 more than two years ago from the lender who told you that the rate of interest was 10%. In the meanwhile, you also started a pool deposit with the same person with a monthly contribution which in two years was supposed to give you a kitty of Rs.50000. On completing the pool term when you go to claim your kitty money, the lender tells you that your claim has been settled with that pending loan of Rs.5000. Is that right? Now, what you don’t understand is how your loan of mere Rs.5000 could gobble up your entire kitty of Rs.50000 in just two years. Stop crying and see that your loan of Rs.5000 has swelled to more than Rs.50000 in 25 months because the rate of interest of 10% was compounded monthly not annually as you thought. In fact, he can ask you to pay a little more.” In between her sob, all she could do was curse her fate.

You can call this exploitation, cheating, dishonesty, but the fact remains that the woman’s own ignorance has proved too expensive. I can sympathise with her because she is illiterate, but, what about those who are reasonably educated yet have learnt little. Last year, my wife needed her US visa renewed, so I called a couple of agents to find out how much they charged for this service. To my surprise, it was upward of Rs.30000 depending upon the brand worth of the agency. I could not imagine paying that kind of money for just getting the form filled and submitted to the embassy. So I decided to sit on my computer and do the job myself. It didn’t take me long to finish the job and get the visa within a short time. I was happy I saved a lot of money, but that did not stop me from wondering at the roaring business that hundreds of these immigration agents are having in almost every town. They are making their millions at the cost of those educated but ignorant young enthusiasts who have stars in their eyes but no skill or talent in their head. Their lack of learning is proving too costly for them.

But isn’t there on the flip side an advantage in it? Not to the ignorant of course, but to others who make business out of it. Didn’t the lender make his money? Aren’t these immigration consultants flourishing because there are so many half-educated people who can’t read the rules themselves and make their case? The happiest of these entrepreneurs are the English language trainers these days who now dot every street corner in every city. They get clients not those just out of schools but also who have professional and postgraduate degrees in their bags. I have always wondered what it was that stopped them from learning this language when they wrote every major exam in that language. Even if you call it a systemic failure, it is easy to see that these individuals are happy partners in it.  Again, as I regret their failure to learn not only the language but other subjects too at their schools, I appreciate their contribution to the economy by providing business to thousands of private tutors and online learning platforms. One man’s loss is another man’s gain; in this case probably of the whole society.

Ignorance, incompetence or lack of learning, in fact, is the oil that runs the economic machinery of this country in a very subtle and covert manner. If things ran in a perfect, flawless and most efficient manner, a very large part of the industry would have to pull their shutters down or half of the workforce will have to go jobless.

Take, for instance the case of Electricity supply. Its frequent failure – sudden blow-out, weekly holiday, fluctuating voltage – has spawned a whole wide range of ancillary industries. Starting from candles, oil lamps, torches we moved on to UPS, inverters, batteries, voltage stablisers to domestic diesel engines and industrial grade power generators including solar power plants etc. Imagine the fate of these industries and the hundreds of others that depend on them, if the electricity supply starts running in an efficient manner. Its erratic behavior and unwillingness to improve, for whatever reasons, is a blessing in disguise, provides innumerable opportunities to other businesses.

Similar is the case in nearly every other walk of life, where because either of ignorance on the part of people or incompetence on the part of system, we have created a very large force of middlemen to get things done. If I break this chain and try to get, for instance, my passport or driving license or birth/marriage certificate without the services of a broking agent I will be deemed to have denied employment to my fellow citizens. In many cases, the necessity of middlemen has been so much unofficially institutionalised that if I try to go direct I will be sent on a wild goose chase that will end only when I return shamefacedly to the fold of the brokers lobby. Notwithstanding education, I must act like an ignorant.

The economic encashment of ignorance is so rampant that there seems be some kind of complicity between the state and the institutions of learning. The state does not seem keen on promoting either education or competence. Where is the incentive for people to go for education when, for example, they can drive all over the country without being able to read a word or run business all their life without writing a word beyond their name? On the other hand, if work is streamlined and hardwired, then the system will shrink in numbers and encourage literacy which the state can ill-afford. The state with its ease of doing political business can see the larger good in perpetuating ignorance and failure. In this way, it can allow all forms of primitive and modern ways to continue.

That is why we can see a Volkswagen and an ox-wagon on the same road at the same time. Learning may be a good idea, but its failure is much better business. At least, for some.   

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Stories We Make Make Us

Long back, when I was living in Chandigarh, I rented an annexe in a big house. A couple of months later, one of my friends, who was transferred to Chandigarh, joined me. Sometimes later another, pleading scarcity of accommodation, planted himself with us. Then another who was out of job, but found all of us friends enjoying together, decided to join the party. So soon, we were four, packed in that little room, chatting, laughing and messing around. The landlord, obviously, was upset, but a learned lawyer and a gentleman that he was, kept tolerating us for a while. One day he called me to his chamber and after seating me near him asked in a paternal tone about my friends and what they did. After listening me, he went quiet for some time and then told me the story of a psychologist, who experimented with mice. He had put five of them in one small cage and two in another. He used to feed them all regularly with the same diet, but after some time he noticed that the five mice who lived in one crowded cage slowly lost their appetite,  got sick and eventually died, whereas the two in the other cage were happily enjoying their time. He told this story with a straight face, but I chuckled and got the message.

Why do people tell stories? Why are stories so popular and without exception prevalent in every culture? The answer probably lies in the nature of human mind. Just as human speech, despite being so complex and creative in comparison to animal communication systems, comes to us naturally, so is the act of story-telling. Scientists believe that human species are pre-programmed to learn languages and tell stories. Our minds are born with a certain innate ability that without effort acquires the elements of language and, unlike animals, uses them beyond their immediate needs. Human languages are free from the constraints of time and place. We cannot, for example, imagine a pack of wolves or of gulls sitting together and chatting about the surfeit of kill that they had last summer, but human beings can use speech to reminisce or foresee. This very unique capacity of human beings to use language and time in a highly flexible way gives their mind immense room for recognition, recall and retelling. In fact, in many ways it shapes, orders and organizes their mind and the events too.

Human beings are therefore compulsive story makers. We make stories about our past in the form of history or myths. We make stories about cause and effect and tell them in the form of scientific enquiries, traditional rituals or even cooking recipes. We make imaginary stories or tell real life events in novels, biographies or travelogues to pass judgment on human affairs. We make stories to instruct and upgrade human behaviour by writing fables, parables, and allegories in the form of Aesop’s or Panchtantra tales. We make jokes, bawdy limericks to humour others. We build fantasies and utopias to give an emotional vent to our hopes, aspirations and fears. All of these in a way mirror our mind and its intricate run.

An interesting question about story making is ‘who owns the story?’. Is it the teller who displays his mind or the listener who takes the liberty to displace it, re-interpret it, metaphorise it or retell it in his own way?  In the enterprise of story making both tellers and listeners are, therefore, equal partners. Remember Alice in Wonderland and comic strips like Peanuts or Simpsons; how they have become equally hit with adults as they can suddenly see meanings in the story that kids can’t. In the highly political times that we live in now, we can see how each party is exploiting this faculty of ours in manufacturing and distributing stories that veil their ideology or censure that of others.   

It is true that we make stories, but, astonishingly, it is equally true that stories make us. As a matter of fact, we are what we grow listening to or reading.  Stories are all around us in the form of conversations (yes, conversation is a story too because it has time sequence), grandma’s bedtime tales, little anecdotes about daily chores, nursery rhymes, folk tales, religious practices, stage plays, parades, films, books etc. In our young impressionistic days all of these sow the seeds of a certain world view, of faith and values, of cognitive development that stays with us all our life. Stories are the most influential part of our socialization and becoming.

In junior school, ‘Mary had a little lamb’ is not simply a nursery rhyme; it speaks of love and its influence. ‘Jack and Jill’ is not only a story of a couple but of inseparable companionship. The fairy tale of ‘Cinderella’ is all about hope in adversity and ‘The Ugly Duckling’ about mother’s love and cultural differences. All of these are secret attempts at moulding our minds. In senior school too, stories continue to be an instrument of influencing minds sometimes unconsciously, at another time tagged with morals. One story that has remained etched in my mind all these years is about a bus conductor whose daily trip used to take him to a terminal which was lonely and deserted and where he had to lay over for an hour for his return journey. He felt bored and thought of utilizing that time to tend that dry patch to grow flowers. In a few months, the place turned into a blooming bed of flowers and his passengers started to congregate there to sit, chat and enjoy. He was not alone now, in fact, his daily journey turned into a pleasure trip. I don’t know why I liked it then and why it has stayed with me all these years. Trust me, it has done nothing to get me into gardening.

 Our religious orientation can be best credited to the home stories that come our way. We are not born religious, but become one; we don’t choose our religion but follow one, after listening to what our elders tell or watching what they do. The little knowledge that most of us have about our religion is the outcome of public enactment of what is called religion, that includes all the family or community rituals, kathas, performances like Ramleela, tv shows etc. If some of us turn atheists or agnostics that too is the result of us being active story makers who as listeners can reinterpret and remake a story.

The most circular yet credible truth is that we make stories and live by them – then, they make or unmake us depending upon the mind they have bestowed us.

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Equality is But a Myth

There is a story from Malaysia about some roosters who try to proclaim their superiority over others by asserting their class. One of them claims that no one can crow clear and loud like him in the morning. Another takes pride in his well-preened plumes, stately neck, princely gait and calls himself a lady killer. Another struts about in the farm humming soulful ditties and maintains that he is a class apart; no rooster had ever been so romantic in the entire history. The last one was totally arrogant and a big fighter; he challenged everyone in the farm to come forward and have a bout with him to decide who was stronger and superior. All this time, a frying pan was listening to their harangue and decided it was time to intervene and stop this needless confrontation. She says,” listen to me, you fools. No matter how strong, beautiful or talented you are, when people are frying you, you are all equal. All of you will end up as fried chicken, so stop quarrelling”. 

Whatever other moral message this story has, I find it interesting for two reasons. One, the concept of equality is most relevant to life after death and second, domination, difference and diversity are the stuff of real life.

When philosophers and poets talk of equality in humans, they look at them as an abstract entity – ephemeral, spiritual or ethical. Religion takes up the notion of soul or spirit, a kind of divine energy that pervades all human beings and makes them equal. Humanists talk of the universality of human emotions and values to underline their unity. Scientists count upon the identical nature of cells, chemicals and components in all human bodies to call them equal. Poets and Sufis anyway consider this body only a transient event which rises from the dust and after a momentary survival merges with the dust again. In the graveyard of dust we are all equal. Such considerations may be good arguments at the metaphysical level to unify us, but they do deny the hard reality of our physical existence, by virtue of which we become a human and a living entity. Man is not an abstraction or a dead body to be dissected or buried for its eternal identity. A dead man is neither human nor has any use of terms such as equality. And the spirit of man, anyway, is not something that we deal very directly, except perhaps in the evening while partying with friends. Real, living humans are the ones we interact all the time

Equality as a concept therefore has to be viewed in terms of real life. Though bestowed upon us by a few learned men, it is an unreal and unnatural proposition. Nature does not make any two things identical or similar or same. No two trees of the same species or their flowers or fruit look the same in size, shape, colour, odour or taste. Less can be said about animal or human species as besides having distinct physical features they have a mind of their own too. We know very well how human beings are differentiated in terms of gender, colour, size, age, beauty, race, education, religion, culture, domicile, occupation, intelligence, talent, riches etc. Not only differentiated, but discriminated too, on the basis of these and many more accounts. If equality was the basic feature of human beings, then there would never have been any history of domination, war or tyranny. The roosters in us, while they are alive and kicking, must proclaim their superiority or power over others and create an environment of inequality and subjugation.  

In life therefore, inequality is more real and rampant than the idealist’s fantasy of equality. It is best evident in the institution of hierarchy that is prevalent almost in all walks of life. In patriarchal societies, we can see it operative in every home, where father stands at the top of the ladder followed by mother and then children. Even when born of the same parents, no two children are the same and seek to settle their hierarchy by a series of competitive encounters. Even in such royal families as Kauravs and Pandavs, this order of importance stays firmly in place, despite the fact that the big brothers take some seriously disastrous decisions. In the world beyond family, hierarchy works in the most cruel form where you have to beat others or get beaten, run ahead of others or lose the race, rise above others or stay below, fall in line or get penalized,  fend for your survival or die incognito. You are eternally in the process of finding your place in the pecking order. You are never equal to others; the moment you reach the level of others, equality takes the form of rivalry. Real life, in fact, abhors equality; it thrives on inequality and loves to see more of it.

In the utopian world of equality, it is a cliché to say ‘all are born equal’. Orwell satirically added that ‘some are more equal than others’, which is not only more true but also an essential condition of the way world runs its business. If we need a business tycoon, we also need workers; if we need a General we also need soldiers; if we need a governor we also need executives; if we need a thinker we also need critics. Inequality takes on board a diverse range of people who enact the drama of this life where tension, conflict, excitement, thrill all happen in one life-time. Isn’t it a bliss therefore,  that we are not built the same way, that each one of us fits a different bill, serves a designated purpose, presents a diverse vignette of life and has a distinct talent and charm? How drab this life would be if all of us had only one kind of beauty, attitude and worldview? Imagine a world where we had only Einsteins, or Madhubalas or Lalu Prasad Yadavs.

When democracies recommend equality of rights and opportunities for all, they are being politically right, which is a good gesture, no doubt. But the real life deals no mercies, makes no equitable distribution, serves no standard fares and does not treat all in the same way. And that is what makes this world what it is – cohesive at times, conflicting at others.

The slogan for an ideal world is not equality but complementarity, where every individual of any size, color, creed or talent gets the honour of making up the lack of others. Like in a jigsaw puzzle where different shapes and sizes interlock with each other to complete the picture.

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Saying What You Mean Not

I read a poem recently. A part of it goes like this

Call a woman a kitten, but never a cat

You can call her a mouse, can’t call her a rat

Call a woman chicken, but never a hen

Or surely, you will never be her caller again

You can say she is a vision, can’t say she is a sight

And no woman is skinny, she is slender and slight

If she should burn you up, say she sets you afire

And you’ll always be welcome, you tricky old liar.

This is not a poem about how to seduce a woman, but about how to use your language pragmatically. Languages are highly arbitrary in choosing the sounds or words that denote worldly objects or ideas, yet they are even more arbitrary when it comes to defining what they connote. Connotation of a word is its cultural load which determines its extended meaning and its social or moral standing. This extension is a highly sensitive and emotional tag that goes with the word where it goes and marks the boundaries where it will be honoured or condemned.  

‘Cow’, for example, is a word that stands for a female animal of the bovine family. We can see that different languages not only have different words for the same animal but also have different cultural connotations about them and the animal. In India, cow is worshipped as pious, fed for charity, sought for blessings, considered motherly and gentle in attitude.  But in the English speaking world, cow is considered ugly, fat, stupid, lazy, docile, unpleasant etc. In India, we can even call a man who is suave and harmless a gentle cow, but in Britain if you called a lady a cow you couldn’t have insulted her more. In India cow has all the positive connotations whereas in other cultures it is a highly disparaging and negative term. In the similar vein, owls have exactly the opposite associations. In Europe they put up huge replicas of owls on the top of important buildings because they are considered emblems of prudence, wisdom and knowledge; in India, owl is a swear term and stands for someone who is foolish, ignorant and insane.  

Such fine cultural or linguistic differences are often conventional in nature. Tempering with them or innovating on them can invite controversies. One of our old hat politicians tried to differentiate between Bharat and India in response to that ugly rape in Delhi. He said that rapes mainly happened in ‘India’ which according to him was the west-influenced urban India and not in ‘Bharat’ which was predominantly rural and traditional in Indian values.  Other politicians, of course, did not appreciate his clever distinction and publically lambasted him saying he doesn’t understand either India or Bharat. The rural India was the hottest hub of exploitation both sexual and economic, though that remains largely unreported. We have also seen how terms like achhut and harijan were controverted and finally a consensus was arrived on dalit.

Making meaning is not entirely the prerogative of the speaker. When in public, it is crucial ‘you say what you mean’. Not the other way around, ‘you mean what you say’. Remember Alice in Wonderland, where the Hatter chides Alice that they are ‘not the same thing a bit’. He mocks her saying ‘you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see!’. March Hare also joins in saying that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’! They are not, obviously. Meaning what you say will entail a lot of explanation, because others are entitled to infer what they see as its larger implications. Most of the time defending your meaning only brings an embarrassment.   

Our half-literate leaders are quite good at not meaning what they say. They often unwittingly plunge into controversies by their careless use of certain expressions whose alternative implication they have no idea about. One such notorious example is when a senior politician referring to one of his own party woman MPs said that she was a ‘tanch maal’, which in jewellers’ lingo means ‘pure gold’, but in street parlance means a female or an object that is highly desirable. Obviously, it created a huge uproar and was labeled as a crass sexist remark. Despite his explanation, the opposition even went to the extent of saying that he had lost his mental balance.  In fact, when it comes to speaking about women or crimes against them, most of our leaders commit what they call Freudian slip, which betrays their typical patriarchal mindset. A Bihar minister said that ‘virgin’ means an unmarried, a pure girl; another defended rape criminals saying ‘boys are boys, they make mistakes’; yet another says girls should be married off early to avoid their rape. Of course, all of them had to later put their foot in their mouth and apologise.

Such verbal gaffes are not necessarily the preserve of some mindless people. Even highly accredited, literate and experienced speakers run into such marshy waters – mostly out of their sheer competence to use the language creatively or humorously. We know Shashi Tharoor, otherwise a well-respected scholar and writer, landed himself in trouble when he called economy travel ‘cattle class’; worse than that he called, derisively of course, ordinary class travellers and his critics ‘holy cow’. Undoubtedly, it raised heckles from all side and he had to regret and concede that he wrongly presumed that humour would be appreciated. Ronen Sen, an equally erudite administrator and our envoy to the US, also earned brickbats from Indian leaders and media when he called detractor of Indo-US nuclear deal ‘headless chickens’. In reply to the ruckus created by his remark, the IB Minister called him a ‘vegetable brain’. See, how the debates become hilarious, somewhat irreverent too, when laced with such figurative language; but, mostly end up in humiliation for speakers.

Language without such figures of speech would not only be bland but also impossible. Human mind keeps building new language tropes, but with the rise of media, public attention and democratic freedom, saying what you exactly mean is like walking a tight rope.

Poet Zafar realized that long back

baat karni mujhe mushkil kabhi aisi to na thi

jais ab hai teri mahfil kabhi aisi to na thi

(speaking has become difficult now, because the gathering now is not the same as it was.)

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Freedom Run Goes Amok

In those days I was quite crazy about international cinema especially of the Festival kind. So when Godard released his Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary), I went to Bradford to see its special screening. As I approached the theatre, I saw a long protest march headed by a Cardinal in full regalia stationed at the gate. When I was about to enter one of the protesters came to me and said, “This film hurts the feelings of the Catholics, I would therefore, request you to boycott it.” I thought for a while and asked him, “Do you mind if I watch the film and make up my mind?” He immediately stepped back and allowed me in. I watched the film and came out – a bit titillated as it had some nude scenes, but no wiser either about the Catholic protest or the film, as it was in French – and went back home without a trace of any of the protesters around.  But what I did understand was how freedom can be exercised in a civilized manner. Freedom is not entirely my right; it is as much the right of others which I have no right to trespass.

Freedom in my country is understood in a whole new perspective. Freedom here is pitching your camping tent in the middle of the road for a protest, charity kitchen or religious celebration. Freedom is burning buses, trains, theatre or others’ property as a mark of your campaign. Freedom is blocking half the road for displaying your merchandise or mindlessly parking your vehicles. Freedom is speeding up and roaring through the town streets on motorbikes with high-decibel exhausts. Freedom is playing out blaring loudspeakers in the middle of the night for your family festivities. Freedom is clearing your home of garbage and piling it on the street. Freedom is selling adulterated food to unsuspecting public or charging ten times on life-saving drugs with no moral qualm. Freedom is giving a damn to others’ consideration and minding your own interests.

Not only the common people, our leaders too exercise this no-holds barred freedom. They have the right to use whatever means to amass unaccounted wealth and assets. They have the right to plunder the state exchequer with high pay packets, privileges and facilities and yet remain out of the tax net. They have the right, despite having majority support, to feel insecure and charge the state for their safety and honour. They have the right to buy their voters and then dump them to oblivion. They have the right to bully their dissidents with criminal violence or use the most prejudiced and offensive language in public. Above all, they have the right to tell blatant lies and make false promises and claims. In brief, they have the right to prioritise their self-interest and exploit the state without caring for the real thing – that is the public good.

Is it freedom, lawlessness, selfishness or the excess of a raw democracy? E.B. White writes that “Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time.” If democracy is a system of governance ‘by the people, for the people’, then, does it mean whatever people do is always right? Do leaders follow what people want or people follow what leaders want? Unfortunately, in our context, there does not seem much difference. Is it a typical case of people getting the leaders they deserve? Or of the might of ignorance getting the better of intelligence? Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. Is it the lowest intellectual denominator that runs our democracy? Does that make a good case for discrediting democracy that led us to this pass?

I do not know. And can’t even tell when the rot started. Certainly, it wasn’t so bad some seventy years ago. Teachers used to tell young learners to always keep others’ interest in mind; they would even punish us severely if we stole anything of others. Elders in the streets would stop us and tell not to shout as someone may be sick or sleeping. Parents would not let us play radio at high volume. Anybody in the neighbourhood would step in if we did something to hurt ourselves or others. Police was not such an intimidating face; in fact they were always the first to look forward to in case of a rescue. Political leaders also presented the look of a public head or a benign community chief. Civic training and disciplining of individuals started early at home.

Is civilized living merely a question of disciplining individuals? In a way, it is. Or is it a question of enforcing the laws of the land? Yes, that too, because to me, both are the same. Fortunately, the laws in our country are in the right place. Though, they are not as strict as in some western countries where you can be fined even for not mowing your lawn as the pest can harm the neighbours.

Disciplining people or making them abide the laws is essentially an exercise in social and mental control of individuals.  It is not fascism, though it works nearly the same way whether one is in a despotic or democratic set up. Laws are always enforced with a strong hand. Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish has traced the development of modern western societies by describing how the institution of punishment evolved from a spectacle of public brutalising of criminals in medieval times to the present day reformatory prisons. He asserts that all institutions like jails, schools, hospitals, corporate offices, factories and army barracks etc. work on the same principle of controlling an individual’s temporal and spatial movements. The exercise of high mental control ensures that individuals do not trespass their rights and encroach upon others’.

How long does a nation take to get conditioned to the public norms and show the expected standards of behaviour? Nobody can tell exactly. But, in our case, I guess, if we took seventy years to go down the civic or moral aberration road, then it may take about the same time to come back – that is from the date we start.

The bad news is that we haven’t started yet and don’t even plan to start any soon. The worse is that proverbial question – who will bell the cat?

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‘All of Life is a Foreign Country’

The first time I went abroad, UK, in 1985, I travelled British Airways which had a one and a half hour halt at Dubai. The moment the plane landed, I noticed a sudden exodus of passengers to the doors. When enquired, I found out that Dubai was a duty-free port and everyone was rushing to buy alcohol and cigarettes. I wondered why people chose to buy their scotch and smoke there when Britain was the home of these products.

The evening I reached London, I went out to buy something for dinner and discovered that I could not communicate with any of the pubs or the corner shops because I didn’t understand their language. I thought I knew some English, but wondered what language those people were speaking.

Later, after settling down a bit in the new country, I was travelling one day by the city bus, when it suddenly stopped at the red light. Since I was standing close to the door, I asked the driver if I could get down there as my destination was closer from that point. The driver gave me an ugly look and asked if I had insurance in that country. I couldn’t get why he was upset and why I could not get down at that point as it was such a common thing back home.

Many years later, again when I was in Reno, USA, I tried to cross the road, when, suddenly, my friend pulled me back and told me that there was a fine of $50 for jaywalking. I knew walking, but what was jaywalking and why should anyone be fined for walking. Aren’t these foreign countries funny, strange and difficult to manage? Of course, they are.

But that’s what I thought until I came across Jack Kerouac’s famous line ‘All of life is a foreign country.’ It is not in foreign countries that we come across strange new things, but in our homeland and in everyday life too. India is a hugely diverse country with hundreds of languages, tribes, and weird customs. The foreigners find our spicy food, chaotic traffic, stray animals on the roads, our happy co-existence with garbage and open defecation very strange and hard to put up with. It is natural if, as a foreigner, you find life in other places funny and outlandish. But what, indeed, came as a revelation to me was that you can be a stranger even in your own country. Surprises and hardships never leave you.    .

Many years ago, I and a couple of other teachers were invited to a dinner by an elderly kind Principal at a remote college in Tamil Nadu. After a brief chat, we were inducted into the dining area where four neatly spread-out banana leaves on the floor, dotted with a dozen tiny heaps of various veggies and chutneys awaited us. No sooner did the rice service started, I found myself fumbling to handle the meal without a spoon. When I asked for one, my host surprised me by telling there was none in the house. The nearest thing that he could hesitantly produce was a serving spoon, which I used clumsily to the delight of everyone in the party. On another occasion, on a trip to the Araku valley, we stopped at a Friday haat to see the tribal way of life. To my surprise, there were several stalls where women had glass jars full of common red army ants for sale. When I asked about it, I was shocked to know that these little creatures were crushed and ingested as a medicine to get rid of malaria or any other fever. Despite my frequent visits, short and long, to Hyderabad, I have not been able to understand the common headshake of the people. Instead of nodding, they prefer to wobble their head sideways to say ‘yes’ or ‘I agree’, To much of the people in the north this horizontal head movement means ‘no’.

Life, no doubt, is surprises galore, but at the same time it never ceases to offer strange new hardships that we have to, like a foreigner, learn to manage and live with. Uncertainties, lifestyle changes and shifting priorities keep popping up new challenges all the time and make us feel like a newcomer and alien in our own life. Every challenge is a new territory which we have to traverse with a lot of caution and trepidation just as we do when we are in new geographies.

If childhood brought me a new challenge of how to learn to ride a bicycle, then the later years persisted with the same fear and unpreparedness when I learnt to drive a motorbike or car. If in childhood I was able to master the mechanical art of wielding a reed pen, and later a fountain or a ball pen, then suddenly there came up a keyboard, an electronic pen and a mouse to pelt me with new challenges. If at first, I learnt to speak and converse with others and later trained myself for the wacky art of public speaking, even then my ordeals were not over. With the onset of Corona I am forced to learn to speak in a void (they call it virtual space) staring at a chequered screen with no real audience or interaction – a bit of an insane act. If in childhood I outplayed my mates with strong legs and puffy lungs by playing ball, bat or racket games, then now I have to learn to make my fingers nimble and run them fast on a gaming console without moving a leg. If at any stage, I thought I had learnt enough in life to feel settled then I was wrong.  Life remains unsettled, foreign forever.

As a young man, after watching a countless films, I thought I was ready for romance and love but found to my chagrin that the girl I wanted did not want me or the romance that I had imagined was not exactly on her menu. Every Indian film with whatever upheavals in romance ends in marriage as if marriage is the end of all troubles. With such naïve ideas in mind I got married only to discover that marriage is as much hard work as romance. Living together is not the same as singing a duet together, though both need a lot of training. Life keeps challenging and landing us on unfamiliar grounds. Parenting, career, old age, disasters, diseases, deaths keep us on tenterhooks and never let us feel settled or at home. Corona pandemic has bound us to our homes, but do we feel at home? Our home has become a foreign country.

Next time if you find someone lost, get it, he may be in an alien territory.

Or on a river, as Munir Niazi says poetically

ik aur dariya ka samna tha ‘munir’ mujh ko

main ek dariya ke paar utra to maine dekha

(I was faced with another river, I discovered, after I crossed one)

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The Cross-Fertilisation of English in India

One of the things I find boringly monotonous in America is its uniformity of culture. You travel from Boston to Los Angeles, a distance of over 4000 km, and you will find the same language, same kinds of people and foods. On the contrary if you travel from Delhi to Hong Kong, nearly the same distance, you will come across probably forty different languages and an equal number of cultures. Diversity is the spice of life. Even within India, if you travel from Amritsar to Kolkata, you may run into more than 20 dialects spread across seven states on a stretch of 2000 km.  This I guess is the major difference between the old and new world. America despite being once upon a time a nation of diverse natives and immigrants has unified them all with one language and culture in less than 250 years. But most of the old geographies like Africa, Europe and Asia still retain their linguistic diversity.

Though diversity historically grew out of isolation, yet it expands equally well when different cultures come in contact with each other. Languages, in particular, assume new accents, lexicon and syntax, when they start mating with other languages. They not only lose their native purity but also produce motley offspring that shares the features of both parents. English being both a neighbourly language to Mediterranean languages and a roving language that travelled with the British colonisers, acquired thousands of new words and forms from languages that it came in contact with. Not only that, it also contributed in an equal measure to the development of regional languages where it ruled. British colonisation of India pitched English in the midst of a hundred languages where it went through a riot of cross-fertilisation.  Many of these mongrel expressions matured into words that bear no recognition now to their originals.

An old book like Hobson-Jobson lists thousands of words that the English sahibs had to acquire to communicate with native Indians. Since the Mughals had preceded the British, the official as well as day-to-day languages of India had absorbed a lot of Persian vocabulary. Old colonial books are replete with such native words as nabob, jagheer, durwaun, benamee. Many of these now have lost their legitimate place in English, but others like, orange (naranje), khaki (khak), saffron (zafran), scimitar (shamshir), spinach (isfinaakh), zircon (Zarkun), musk (mushka) sugar (shakkar) still continue to flourish in their new avatar .

Interestingly, Portuguese who also landed in India in the 16th century and ruled some parts of it also adopted many local terms in their own manner of speaking and made them easier for the British to anglicise them. Thus words like palanquin, typhoon, monsoon, brinjal, mango, curry, coir, catamaran, betel, copra have mixed ancestory of Persian, Portuguese and Indian languages. Not that Portuguese adapted Indian words, but that they also introduced many of their own into English by coming in contact with Indian culture, like plantain, muster, caste, peon, almirah, cobra, mosquito etc. In the business of language trafficking, if Indian languages added words to English via Portuguese, then an Indian language like Hindi also absorbed many Portuguese words e.g. chabi (key), balti (bucket), tauliya (towel), mistri (mason) and baola (which becomes jhola of today).

This process of borrowing from Indian languages did not stop with the exit of the British, as their language became the working language of this country and its contact with the native people turned into a full-fledged enterprise of indianising English. Over the years, several Indian words have further sneaked into English like karma, mantra, juggernaut (Jagannath), shampoo (champi), punch (paanch) etc. Not only this, we have also coined new English words signifying particular Indian phenomena like dung-cakes, dearness allowance, cousin sister, co-brother, head-bath, interdine (eating with other caste people). As if this was not enough, we have also morphed certain English words with inflections which are otherwise not found in regular English e.g. duplicacy, weightage, proudy, localite, comperer, derecognise,  prepone, etc. In a similar vein, we have gone ahead and created English collocations which are foreign to the English ears. The English abstain from alcohol, we abstain from duty; they pass the examination, we clear it; they provide board and lodging, we give boarding and lodging facility; they raise an issue in a discussion, we raise the discussion; in their country licenses expire, in ours people; mishaps are minor setbacks for them, here 50 people die in a road mishap.

The adoption of English by Indians is not limited to tweaking the norms of English lexicon or extending it, but also enriching their own language with a plethora of English words. Everyday Hindi language, we can see, just cannot survive without such common English words as school, ticket, doctor, vote, glass, hotel, film etc. In a more surreptitious move, it has transmuted several others and made them its own, for example, hasptal (hospital), botal (bottle), santri (sentry), baira (bearer), astabal (stable), buchad (butcher), vidhwa (widow) etc. 

When the English started mouthing Hindi or Indian words they vulgarised them with a typical English accent. Thus many Hindustani words acquired strange phonetic shape and spellings. For example names like Kanpur became Cawnpore, Kollam (Kerala) Quilon, Ahmedabad Avadavat, Karachi Crotchey, Patel Potail, Chakarvarti Chuckerbutty; and words like urdu turned into oordoo,  banjara brinjarry, chabuk chowbuck, karkhana carconna, nadia nuddeea, badshah podshaugh.  Not to be outdone by the British who corrupted our words with their atrocious speech, Punjabis tortured an equal number of English words while adopting them to their own accent. The redesigned words have taken such a native shape that it takes an effort to trace relationship with their distant cousins in English. Take, for example, words like  ill (eagle), miani (mezzanine), asla (arsenal), daaj (dowage), tarpal (tarpaulin), tochan (tow chain), plaas (pliers), such (switch), tandal (tendril), vohti (beauty), ardali (orderly), chhalli (shelling), vatta (weight).

Languages are promiscuous almost like animals. They don’t care about colour, creed or race; all they need is a close contact and the process of self-procreation begins. Purity is an issue with moralists, languages are amoral entities.

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The Quick-Fix Way of Life

Corona has brought to light a phenomenon that I thought was lying low – at least in the urban populace. Generally known as ‘Quick-Fix’, the phenomenon has not only a nominal semblance with that much marketed glue, but also its obdurate stickiness. Being a superspreader, Corona has installed fear, desperation and paranoia in the minds of people by subjecting them to an endless misery. In times like these, we have seen all – the simple, the wicked and the generous minds – going on an overdrive to be charitable (is that a euphemism?), by suggesting some quick and effective remedies to the disease. I guess in the past fifty years, no disease has seen so many alternative cures as covid-19 in the past one year. Steam, hot spices, vinegar, lime juice, aloe vera, basil,  gooseberries, pungent stems like ginger and garlic etc. have been called to service for the gratification of this unforgiving disease.

Quick-fix solutions are rescue operations of the easiest and the most promising and handy kind, but, at the same time, the most tentative, least reliable and generally of fickle effectiveness; for the simple reason that they have not gone through any proper trialing.  If one person has found lime juice effective in cleansing the nasal passage that does not make it a good cure for all. If spiced up tea concoctions are good for a sore throat that does not mean they will work equally well for fatal diseases like Coronavirus. If turmeric is a good anti-oxidant, we can’t always trust its efficacy to fight a massive virus infestation. Above all, we rarely know who the pioneers of these remedies are and what trust credentials they hold.

In the London plague of 17th century, Daniel Defoe in his ‘A Journal of the Plague Year (1665)’ tells us how poor simple folks were hoodwinked by what he calls ‘quack- conjurors’. These wicked people would claim definite cures for plague and openly advertise their trade with such slogans – ‘Infallible preventive pills against the plague’, ‘Never failing preservatives against the infection’, ‘Incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before’, ‘An universal remedy for the plague’, ‘The royal antidote against all kinds of infection’.  Three and a half centuries later, haven’t we heard declarations exactly to the same tone and tenor for Covid -19? But very few of us choose to call them quacks and refrain from using their prescriptions.

Quick-fixes, not always of the medical kind, are generally delivered with an intention to save effort and cost. That is why perhaps people lap them up so quickly. It may also be owing to the general state of fear, uncertainty and mindlessness in which we normally stay all our life; in which state we instantly grab anything that seems somewhat reassuring. More than that, the quick-fix solutions sell well with the average mind that is easy-going and resists any serious interrogation of things. This lethargy is obvious as most of us learn to do things by imitation or make decisions on the basis of one or two examples, howsoever exceptional these may be. In fact, in most cases, they are the exceptions or chance events, but our lazy mind takes them as rule and runs the business of life on them. 

Defoe in his journal also mentions of a couple: the husband ferried plague infected dead bodies on a wheelbarrow for years and the wife served as nurse all through that time, yet both came out unscathed. Not only that, they survived twenty long years after the Plague. How did they do it? According to him, the husband ‘never used any preservative against the infection, other than holding garlic and rue in his mouth, and smoking tobacco’. And the wife washed ‘her head in vinegar’, kept her clothes moist with vinegar or ‘snuffed vinegar up her nose’. Now can we make a cure based on this single experience? If garlic, tobacco or vinegar were such mighty antidotes to the Plague then why did London alone lose nearly 70,000 lives?

But we have to agree that beliefs like these continue to flourish till this day. I believed for a while that urban people, under the influence of education and media, had come out of this mental laziness and accepted things only after a proper probe.  But I was wrong. The quick-fix way of life is as much popular with them as with others. In fact, its ease of application and low cost makes it such an attractive alternative to other long-term and expensive procedures. It seems life likes short-cuts and inherently believes in the principle of economy; and people instinctively prefer to be driven than drive themselves. It is another matter altogether if they discover later that the short-cut was a road to nowhere and impossible too. Many of those who chose a quicker and shorter route to enter into another country have realized it – ending up languishing in jails.   

The success of Nirmal Baba is one of the best stories to assess the popularity of the quick-fix way. The Baba openly violates all norms of sanity, even of common-sense. Some of his bizarre, bordering on comic, solutions to problems include buying a new branded jacket for doing well in the exams, feeding pigeons for owning a new house, serving a curry dish to others for the wellbeing of your kids. More than faith in an individual Baba, it speaks of our continued belief in miracles – that anything can happen even if the trigger has no direction to the target. What may happen sometimes as a matter of co-incidence is understood as providential. The quick-fixes of the Baba kind also sometimes act as a placebo whose effect is felt more by the power of your mind than the quick-fix itself. These short-cuts work the same way as charms or mantras that people wear to fortify themselves against any adversity.

The most enigmatic part of human nature is that such practices have proliferated despite 300 years of rationalist censure. It tells more about life and the way it is lived than the judgments some ‘wise men’ have made about it.

The capillary effect of this phenomenon is that it has risen to the high ups with equal dexterity. Don’t forget our PM telling us to bang pots and pans and our Health Minister telling us to eat chocolate to keep the Corona away.

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Think Pads of the Literati

We had a professor who was a good thinker but a bit casual. Once on a tea cup in a meeting he said ‘the real seminar usually happens outside the seminar in a group chat.’ It was somewhat odd, but I realized its full import soon after when I went to speak on a seminar next. The talk went off well and the session as usual ended with a few enquiries. Later in the evening some of us seminarians assembled near a tea shack under a tree. Sipping their tea in a most relaxed manner, they started quizzing me about the topic I had spoken; soon the polite enquiries turned full blast and I was shot down with a hundred penetrating-darts. The topic was laid threadbare and every string of its generic development was interrogated. That is when I understood the significance of these informal discussions, which are, otherwise, peripheral to the real seminar.

This little incident came to mind as we read recently the news of final closure of Indian Coffee House at Shimla. In the history of intellectual development in India, such tea or coffee houses have played a very vital role. Until late 1980’s, beginning just about Independence, these were the institutionalized places for informal meetings of socially awakened literate gentry – like teachers, writers, journalists, artists, budding socialites etc. Tongues, hands, sometimes, cups flew freely and fluently in debating, discussing and dissecting issues that concerned us as citizens or lovers of art. These houses were truly middle class cultural spaces, austere in furnishing, generally low-cost, noisy, chaotic and full of smoke. One could see the same set of faces sometimes on the same table on daily basis. You could identify their ideological moorings from a coarse cotton sling bag that hung on their shoulder or chair back.

These regulars were low on money but high on aspiration and commitment. They were educated, well-read in western literature and art, and keen to see the newly minted values of freedom and equality translated into everyday life or literary writings. In those days, under the influence of progressive socialism, our films, literature and arts made most efforts to bring the idea of growth to the door-steps of everyone, especially the poor. Coffee houses became the fertility centres of breeding new consciousness, enquiries and sensitive responses. You can get a brief idea of their ambience in the 1957 film “Dekh Kabira Roya’ in which three young artists-a painter, a singer, a writer- meet regularly in a coffee house with little or no money in their pockets. The film is a routine romantic comedy but it depicts well how coffee houses were the grounds of sustenance for fledgling artists.

Indian Coffee House, one of the most iconic of these houses, turned into a brand in the 60’s and started mushrooming in nearly every major city, including the campuses of some prominent universities like Jawaharlal Nehru, Panjab and Aligarh. Following the trend in Europe, such tea or coffee joints started attracting intellectuals and other literati and soon became addas for their free thinking, critical opinions and book discussions. The most documented of these houses in the north are of course from Delhi, which saw the regular presence of such prominent writers as Vishnu Prabhakar, Mohan Rakesh, Kamleshwar, Bhisham Sahnni and Kartar Singh Duggal in various stages of their literary development.

Dissent being an integral part of any intellectual activity, New Delhi’s coffee house met its nemesis during emergency in 1975, when Indira Gandhi saw it as ‘a place that fostered sedition’ and ordered its closure. Otherwise, in good old days, this place had seen her and other leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Jai Prakash Narayan at its premises.  The now locked Shimla coffee house too had its moments of glory when it was recently visited by none other than Narendra Modi. Other Coffee houses in the country too had their luminary patrons. Allahabad coffee house had Firaq Gorakhpuri who would hold forth there for hours with his admirers. Patna had Phanishwar Nath Renu and Chandigarh, the master playwright Balwant Gargi.

If these tea or coffee houses can be called the think pads of the intellectuals then nothing illustrates it better than the Pak Tea House of Lahore. Established as India Tea House by a Sikh in 1940, it turned Pak tea House in 1948 after partition, and had since remained the literary and political hub of the best of creative minds until its closure in 2000. It saw the rise of humanistic progressive literature in its time as well as anti-establishment writings in the face of oppressive Pak regimes. The galaxy of writers who were its regulars virtually reads like the who’s who of Urdu literature; Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Saadat Hasan Manto, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Intezar Husain, Nasir Kazmi just to mention a few. Indian writers like Sahir Ludhianvi, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Krishan Chander also used to show up at this place whenever they were in Lahore. On a couple of occasion even Amrita Pritam and Ismat Chugtai walked into this place, though the place was largely the preserve of the male species. It used to remain open till late midnight where these mighty pens had endless runs of teacups and free intellectual trade in a non-judgmental environment. This is how Intezar Husain complimented it ‘No other literary institution of the country including the Academy of Letters has credibility equal to the Pak Tea House’.

A sample of the kind of interaction that used to take places in such tea houses can be found in Syed Asghar Wajahat’s famous play Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya O Jamiya Hi Nahi, in which the real poet Nasir Kazmi has been cast as a character who most of the time hangs around a tea shop, stays there until late hours, recites his poems and also gets into an argument with a fundamentalist bully who tries to deny an old Hindu lady her ritual Hindu rights. Nasir presented the voice of sanity in those rabid partition times.

On Public demand, the government of Panjab (Pak) helped the reopening of Pak Tea House in 2012, but the business in no good. Times have changed: no urgency for nation building, no idealism, no suffering in penury – the world has turned glitzy now, dotted with glasshouse cafe’s and chic furnishings. Gone are the days when Nasir Kazmi’s words would be welcome.

Aao ghas pe sabha jamaye, Maikhana to band parha hai. (Let’s have a gathering on a grass patch; tavern is closed for the time.) 

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Of Mango Treats and Tales

Every mango season brings back memories of old mango seasons. All of us, I suppose, must have had close encounters of the mango kind whose account can fill the large part of a festive evening.

The sight of a sun baked, supple, succulent, syrupy mango is beyond the limits of human resistance, least of all in childhood or adolescent age. It is a fruit that has tempted the kings and the commoners alike for thousands of years. The western world may have found a symbolic temptation in apple, but nothing matches the real, fleshy, sublime bliss that this fruit gives to the tropical people. Its pure, sensuous gastronomical power has spared none and, we can see that its primeval pull matches well with the intense gusto with which it is eaten. 

Today’s cultured practice of scooping the flesh with a spoon was nowhere to be seen in my younger days. Mangoes were eaten with fingers, teeth and tongue with not a care in the world how messy you look. I can never forget my school summer vacation at my aunt’s house in Hoshiarpur where the daily after-dinner ritual was a fiercely competitive round of mango sucking. At that time mangoes did not come by kilos but by sackfuls and were waited upon in the evening with more desperation than longing as they were kept for cooling in an iced tub.

This form of mango indulgence stretched till quite late in my youth. On our frequent work visits to Haridwar, the evenings were devoted to two nearly identical-in-effect acts – one spiritual and the other temporal.  After watching the divine spectacle of Aarti we would stretch ourselves by the side of Ganga whose icy water hurtling down was doing us a great favour of cooling our stock of mangoes slung deep in a sack of thin fabric. The act of eating mangoes in semi-darkness that camouflages your untidiness added to our secret pleasure.

Ghalib’s obsession with mangoes is quite famous and he himself and his admirers tell several anecdotes demonstrating his weakness for this extraordinary fruit. One particular incident that I am fond of has been narrated by his disciple and friend Altaf Hussain Hali. While taking a walk with the King Bahadur Shah Zafar in Bagh-e-Hayat Baksh in the vicinity of Red Fort, Ghalib was keenly watching the heavily laden mango trees. When the king enquired about what he was looking for Ghalib instantly made up a couplet in Persian to say that the common belief was that every item of food had the name of its prospective consumer written on it. I was looking to see if my or my forefathers’ name is written on any of them.  The king immediately got the hint and had a good basket of mangoes sent to Ghalib.

It is not that mango experience is unique to Indians only. In most of the tropical countries mangoes are experienced with the same intensity as here. Mariatu Kamara in her, otherwise, horrifying book called Bite of the Mango tells us how as a child of 12 she was captured by rebels in Sierra Leone and maimed by cutting both her hands. Left to die, helpless and alone, it was the bite of the fruit mango that infused in her a fresh desire to live. One can’t imagine a more gratifying tribute to this fruit. May be that is the reason, it is sometimes called ‘the food of gods’.

On a less sombre note, John Agard, a Jamaican-British poet presents a rather comical portrait of an English girl when she eats her first mango. He instructs her to eat it, as we do, by peeling it with her teeth or making a hole in it and sucking the juice. After finishing the mango, when she asks for a hanky to clean her fingers, he tells her ‘when you eat mango your hanky is your tongue’. Not only this, he accords the convention of licking the fingers while eating mangoes the respectability of culture. And on a triumphant note declares that learning the mango eating ritual by an English girl amounts to a kind of reverse colonisation.

In the Indian fruit hierarchy, mango has a cult status. It has been there since ancient times and figures prominently in the annals of Hindu and Buddhist mythology. One Vedic text tells the story of Lord Ganesha and his brother Kartik. In a contest to win a particular mango blessed by a sage, both were asked to circle the world three times; and the one to finish first was promised to get it as prize. Kartik was quick to take flight on his peacock, while Ganesh quietly chose to go around his parents three times. Ganesha won the race with his sagacity and the mango from then onwards became the fruit of wisdom.

Buddhists too hold this fruit and its tree in high esteem as it is closely associated with their Master. The legend goes that Amarpaali (literally, the protector of mangoes), the nagarvadhu of Vaishali hosted Buddha on his last sojourn for a meal at her residence in the middle of a vast mango grove. Later, impressed with the Master’s aura, she donated the entire grove to him where he held several subsequent sermons. She also in the meanwhile converted from a courtesan to a follower and dedicated herself to the Master’s service. The Buddhist monks even today consider mangoes sacred and exchange them as gifts. Not only they, most traditional Indians, as we know, also tie stringed flowers tasselled with mango leaves on their doors on auspicious occasions.

Mango trees have also been linked to love and erotica since the times of Kalidas. Shakutala was suggested in a figurative manner to get a strong husband like a mango tree. One of the five mythical arrows of Kamadeva is tipped with a mango blossom that works like a love-potion and stimulates passion. That is why probably poets in India have been singing of the aching desire not under the elms but mango trees. Women are represented to embrace them in pleasure and pain. When happy they make swings on them and when unhappy sit under them and lament their lost love.

In that case, can we say if Indians breed fast, mangoes are to blame?

(a shorter version of it appeared in The Hindustan Times May 28, 2021)

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The Curse of the Pig and Other Myths

The other day I woke up in the morning to see that my small green patch outside my home had been badly dug up. A part of its carpet grass had been uprooted and there was dirt strewn all around. Despite giving a serious thought about who the culprit was, I could not zero in on anyone. Then I just let it go, taking the damage in stride.

But the mystery deepened when the next morning I discovered an equally large patch scratched and ravaged again. This time I sought the opinion of my neighour whose lawn, I could observe, also bore signs of some damage though not as much as mine. Having been a much travelled man, he was quick to guess that it was the work of some animal that probably prowled the area in the night. We both started keeping a strict vigil and soon discovered that it was a gang of seven pigs, small and big, that make nocturnal forays and look for some edible roots at our expense.

Since my lawn was their favourite hunting ground, I immediately ordered our gardener to erect some kind of a fence around to save it from any further damage. He tied up a few wires and ropes that were available in the house to block the openings including the passage to the lawn. The result was quick and to the delight of everyone, the lawn saw no further injury from that day onwards.

A few days later, I saw the stem of a creeper in the same lawn being constricted by the wire that I had tied to support it. I felt uneasy at the gag and thought to remove it to give the plant a free flow of its juices. Since the passage was partially blocked by wires, I carefully put one leg across the fence and raised the other to get in, but to my utter horror, my slipper caught the wire and I was thrown flat on the ground with both of my feet in extreme pain. I instantly realized I had hurt myself severely. The doctor later told me that I had twisted my foot badly and torn a ligament.     

The next morning when I got up in pain, I received a much harsher shock when my wife told me that pigs had visited the lawn again last night through the broken wires and ruined whatever was left of the grass.

The same evening, watching me limp, my neighbour made polite enquiries about my injury. When I told him that I could not jump the fence carefully and hurt my foot, he made the usual sympathetic oohs but declared instantly that it was the curse of the pigs. You know that pigs are legendary animals and any meddling in their affairs can invite the wrath of gods. And since it was a family of seven, the power they wielded must be manifold. I stood dumb to his explanation and could not tell him that what he was telling me was all crap. The fall was a plain case of negligence. In silence, I swallowed the curse of the pigs.

But that did not stop me from going back to several myths and superstitions that people world over hold in awe of this mythical animal. In Indian myths, Varaha, the wild boar, is supposed to be the third avatar of Vishnu, the mighty protector and preserver of mankind.  Varaha came down to save the Earth from a cruel demon that had dragged the Earth to the bottom of the patal lok (underworld). And it was this boar God that restored it to its present position where life thrives. The Earth later became his consort and is usually shown lifted on his tusks in various paintings. If such is the power of the pig, who am I to question his right to that little patch of earth that I thought belonged to me.

Not only in India, in most of the eastern and western myths, the wild boar is depicted as the savior of nature that exists in the form of forests and animals. The most famous of these representations is the 1997 Japanese animation blockbuster ‘Princess Mononoke’, where angered by the damage that people had done to nature, an angry boar attacks a prince and curses him with injuries that would lead to his slow death. Later also in the story, a gang of wild boars led by a blind leader attack people of an industrial town which represents development at the cost of devastating nature.  The film is set in the 14th century Japan and is inspired by a myth that had its origin in the middle ages.

Irish folklore is full of stories about wild pigs, depicting them both as destructive and creative super animals. One such tale belongs to a magical boar, who had wreaked a great damage to the farms; and when people decide to get rid of him, he makes them chase him from the north to the south, where suddenly he enters the sea and disappears.  Believing that he is no more, people return home, only to find that the boar was back with a vengeance and was killing anyone who crossed his way. So they were at it again and finally killed him with spears and buried him under a mound of stones, which even today stands. Interestingly, that mound today is the site of the Black Pig Festival held in the month of August with a wide range of celebratory events

Pigs have a dubious status in human history, some hold them sacred, others consider them abominable; but being ancient and mythical they are a part of several superstitions. In several European countries, when people go navigating on the sea, they don’t allow even the use of the word ‘pig’ as it may offend the goddess Earth, who controls winds, and may bring bad luck to their ship. They refer him with names like ‘curly tail’ or ‘turf rooter’. 

Yes, ‘turf rooter’ surely, he is, who would know better than me?

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Naming Game – The Changing Rules

Shakespeare’s famous line ‘what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, actually, resonates what language philosophers have always believed – that naming of things is arbitrary in every language, that the given name has little or no relationship to what it stands for. How does it matter if rose the flower was given another name like, for example, ‘brute’? In that case, Robert Burns, instead of singing ‘O my luve is like a red red rose’ would have written  

O my Luve is like a blue, blue brute

   That’s newly sprung in June;

O my Luve is like the melody

   That’s sweetly played in tune.

Blue would then become romantic and the sweetness of the flower, remaining the same, would have got associated with the name ‘brute’. Just like different languages that call the common ‘dog’ with such diverse names like kutta in Hindi, chien in French, perro in Spanish, hund in German, and nay in Tamil. That is why Shakespeare thinks that the sweetness of rose will remain the same no matter what name we give to it.   

Notwithstanding that, we can see that names have their own life, significance and sometimes secrets. They can say a lot about the times and circumstances in which they came into being.  Bikini, for example, got its name because America had at that time an atomic explosion on a small atoll called Bikini Island and this new tiny garment was considered equally explosive by people in 1940’s. The designer, it has been told, had to hire a stripper to showcase it. Similarly Lakme, the famous cosmetic brand, was launched by the renowned JRD Tata in 1950’s with French collaboration. Tata, himself being half-French, wanted to choose a name that had an exotic aura but desi roots. During those days a French opera by the name Lakme was very popular. He decided on it instantly, as Lakme is a French version of the Indian name Lakshmi which like all names undergoes several mutations even in India like Lachmi, Lakhmi, lakhi.

The process of naming, particularly personal names, is interesting and speaks a lot about the geographies, cultures and languages they come from. John a common Christian name has been spoken and spelled in hundred different ways depending upon the country and language it belongs to. John turns into Ivan in Russian, Giovanni in Italian, Jean in French, Jan in Polish, Johann in German, Jon in Norwegian, Juan in Spanish, Sean in Irish, Yohan in Sinhalese and the list goes on. Within India too, where language and culture change so quickly, it is no surprise that Singh transforms into Singhavi, Singhania, Sinha, Singhu Simha, Sen, Sinh, Singham in different regions.

Names are also closely linked to people’s life and time. If you hear a name like Chhaju Lal or Kikkar Singh or Rulia Ram, you can instantly guess that the person would be old and perhaps belonged to the rural India of bygone days. In the pre-partition times when different communities lived in closed proximity to each other, it was not uncommon for Hindus to borrow Muslim names for their children. Thus names like Iqbal, Gulzar, Barkat, Mehar, Naseeb became popular.  And the trend continues even today with Khushboo, Gul, Juhi, Kareena, Shahid etc.  Similarly, on the other side, we had Pakistani actresses named Anita Ayub , Veena Malik and Parveen Rizvi better known as Sangeeta. During the first and second world war when lots of Punjabis joined armed forces and fought on behalf of the British, such names as Kaptan (Captain), Jarnail (General), Karnail (Colonel) came into circulation. Not only this, children were also named Germanjit and Japanjit Singh to commemorate those events.

Religion has been the biggest influencer in deciding names of people. Ram, Krishan, Shiv, Durga,  parvati have been easy choices. But of late, with the resurgence of religious and ethnic zeal, there has been an insistence on digging out old mythical Sanskrit names for children. We have thus such abstruse names as Adriti, Wamika (Durga), Saanvi (Laxmi), Bhaumi (Sita) for girls and Ekadanta (Ganesh), Fanish (Shiv), Palvit (Vishnu) Vivaan (Krishna) for boys. Sikhs under the principle of equality do not distinguish between male and female names. For the same reason, they are not supposed to flaunt their caste, as such many choose to add the name of their village as last name. We have, therefore, names like Prakash Singh badal, Surjit Bindrakhia, Manjit Singh GK (Greater Kailash) on the lines of Urdu poets who choose to suffix their name with their home towns: Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Daag Delhvi. But Sikhs are also not far behind in finding unique and highly religious names for their children. Savour, for example, names like Har Gurdhyan Singh, Guni Nidhan Singh and Dharam Anukaran Singh.

The lure to find innovative and ostentatious names for their wards has taken some people beyond religion and tradition. As citizens of a globalized world, they have tried to hybridise their traditional names with other tongues. Names like Rosy, Pinky, Honey, Daisy is old hat. As a teacher I have come across names that truly stand out and can be called masterpieces of linguistic interbreeding. Consider for example, Arshqueen, Prayjeet, Saffronpal, Session Kumar Judge, Sciencedeep, Gurpraise, Powerpreet, Unique Singh and above all, Shabbypreet. If I cannot figure out what prompted parents to name their daughter Shabby, then I also plead my ignorance why a family named their child ‘Rakhel’ (mistress). A possible guess is that they were probably trying to give local spellings to the English name Rachael. Continuing their flirtation with other languages, they have also given such faraway names as Gavenpreet, Rittenpreet, Jackpal, Ricken, Insdeep. But the two names that truly bowled me over were Heme and Chemphy. Heme is obviously a name given by a mother as it is a combination of she ‘me’ and an anonymous man ‘he’. Chemphy, I found out later, is a love child of two serious academics – one a teacher of chemistry and the other of physics.  

 If these names do not give an emerging picture of the new naming rules, then please refer to the name that Elon Musk, the second richest man in the world and maker of Tesla car, has given to his child – ‘X Æ A-Xii’.

Now don’t ask me how to pronounce it.

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Your Life is But My Business

We, a group of ten professionals, had been called by a company to brainstorm on an important issue. The venue was the boardroom of a swanky hotel. After an hour of head scratching, it was time for tea. The room service was called and everyone was asked to order their preferred tea and snack. To my surprise and dismay, ten people had ordered ten different kinds of tea – dismay, because I was the only ignoramus in the group who didn’t even know that tea had so many siblings.  The order book read like this: lemon-honey tea, mint tea, black pepper tea, jasmine tea, green tea, masala tea, Tetley tea, separate tea, ginger-tulsi tea, chamomile tea.

Even in its heydays when tea really became the beverage of the world, not many had thought of such a variety. Are these various teas different in nature or is it a marketing gimmick that panders to diverse tastes of the people with the same stuff? I do not know. But I am inclined to believe that industrialism with its innovation and commercialism with its lust for profit can create a huge demand for things that people did not need earlier or know they existed.  Look at the advertising copy of another tea called Naxalbari Organic Calming Tea – ‘This light tranquil tea with heavenly scent of Himalayan breeze will dissolve stress and induce a feeling of deep serenity’. With such a purple prose on your tongue, even a Sushmita Sen will not be difficult to pick up.  It is marketing seduction at its best.

It is a long standing practice of industrial houses to introduce minor variations in their products and create new consumers. Remember the old Marlboro cowboy adverts – cigarettes meant for tough guys. But when they had to expand on their client base, they introduced Milds for women saying as ‘Mild as May’.  Likewise, I remember a huge hoarding of Max Factor in England in the eighties in which they had shown a young handsome boy properly groomed, with a tagline to the effect: if it looks good on him, would it not on you? Those were the early attempts by cosmetic industry to attract men to the beauty salons. And today, you know, it has become normal for men. They have even got a new term for such fashionable young men – metrosexual.

Commerce is not all about expanding business but also creating business where there was none.  Take, for instance, the business of an old barber, whose job fifty years ago was largely restricted to men in giving them a hair-cut and shave.  Today they not only cater more to women than men but also have broad-based their services with several add-ons. Their claim to professional and expert handling means that even such routine tasks as shampooing or colouring cannot be performed safely at home, unless it is preceded by some scalp treatment. Hair styling has acquired the dimensions of a hugely creative art in which your hair go through several mutations like curls, perms, straightening and streaking before they are set into a shape with pins, bands and some chemical unguents.   

Fashion has always been an integral accessory to the rich. But in 20thc., it blatantly joined hands with commerce and industry in a mutually beneficial accord.  Its diktats now run through every aspect of life, giving much room for business expansion to both of them. The most influential area of fashion is the beauty culture, riding on whose wave beauty salons have proliferated like never before. The range of their services is mind boggling – facial, pedicure, manicure, waxing, threading, exfoliation, eyelashes tinting, massage, hydrotherapy, sauna, steam bath, micro pigmentation, body wraps, mehndi, bridal make-up, saree-dressing to mention just a few. Within each of these services, there is an enormous variety in terms of application of methods, chemicals, oils or instruments.

The most cunning quality of fashion is its high volatility. It keeps changing fast, giving everyone aligned to it good business. But the most ingenious of its feats is that it can bring to popularity even something that is decidedly anti to the established norms of beauty. We always thought well-groomed hair look good, but the current rage is a gelled finger-combed puff or a dishevelled, scruffy head.  Forget about young people, even Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of UK likes his hair ruffled and unkempt. The trend is not limited to hair; look at the jeans. Whoever thought that faded, frayed, ripped trousers would look beautiful and respectable?  And don’t forget our discriminating views about shoes. There was a clear difference between formal and casual footwear. But giant companies like Nike and Adidas, hand in glove with fashion industry, have completely upset the equation.

Commerce thrives on creating new demands and in the process new professions, new brands and new celebrities. See, how such common occupations as cooking or tailoring or such family affairs as wedding, gardening or pet-keeping have attained the status of exclusive professions. Who could imagine cooks, now called chefs, and tailors now rechristened as dress designers would become international celebrities and dominate TV channels.  Weddings would turn designer, theme and concept driven; dogs would need special food, grooming and services of a psychiatrist; undergarments, the most inconspicuous part of our dressing would be taken over by a booming lingerie industry. Even such bounties of nature as water and flowers would be subjected to the whims of commerce. You can drink now mineral, mountain, filtered, flavoured or fizzy instead of plain water. Natural flowers have turned hybrid, synthetic and a bunch of them into bouquets, baskets of diverse patterns.

Has this diversity completely overtaken us? Have we become slaves to the proliferating variety? Does it give us better comfort or happiness? I am not sure, but yes, commerce and industry have quietly intruded our life and made a good business of it.

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SHADES OF SPRING SENTIMENTS

Spring is here. Unlike other seasons, people everywhere welcome spring. It is a time of festivities, celebrations, feasting and above all of flowers that start blooming, spreading their resplendence all around. Probably, it is the relief from harsh winter that kept people cooped up in closed environment or the return of the sunshine after the bleak, muggy days of winter or the re-emergence of all the sights, sounds and smells after a long freeze that makes the season a very special one for all.

If we have festivals like Basant Panchami, Holi, Baisakhi, Gudi Parva or the song and dance festivals of Khajuraho and Goa during this time, then the western world also has Valentine’s Day, May Queens and Easter celebrations. Easter may now have associations with the resurrection of Christ, but it has its origin in the spring festivities of early pagans. Easter eggs and bunnies are some of the remains of that old before-Christ era. Chinese too have their biggest festival called Chinese New Year or Spring Festival around the beginning of this season. The large lion-head dance parades accompanied by heavy drum beating and clanking cymbals that we see are an essential part of these celebrations.

As nature takes a turn for the pleasant, Rashtrapati Bhavan, too, opens the gates of its Mughal Gardens to the public to let them revel in the fragrant air of new blossoms, receive the healing touch of the herbal garden and enjoy the bewitching sights of bonsai trees.

More than ordinary folks, it is time for the poets to go on a creative overdrive. They have sung paeans to no other season the way they have to it. They celebrate not only the revival and beauty of nature but embed a thousand emotions in their verses that an average person only vaguely experiences. For example, Farhat Shehzad says

Koplein phir photo aayi shakh par kehna use

Vo na samjha hai, na samjhega magar kehna use

We take the hint, it is spring time, but what does the poet want to convey? If shrubs have started to sprout, then what? What is so mysterious about it? Well, we know poets are not dumb, timid they may be, for they can’t say a thing straight enough for others to follow. What remain unsaid are the feelings of beauty, longing, desire and passion that have raised their head in the lover after a long hiatus of winter separation. He will like her to join him in an amorous union, but is not sure whether she will understand it. Hafiz Jalandhari’s famous ‘Lo Phir Basant Aayi’ is more direct about it. After presenting a close-up of the jollity of this season, he portrays the picture of a young girl who even when laden with flowers feels sad because she is away from her lover.

Ik nazneen ne pehne

phoolon ke zard gehne

hai magar udas

nahin pee ke pass

gham-o-ranj-o-yaas

dil ko parhe hai sehne

Do people really miss their loved ones in this season? And why? Are other seasons not equally good for lovers’ meeting or dating? Is it something natural or is it a social or cultural conditioning that makes them feel so? I have no answers to these questions, but feel grateful to poets that they conflate the pleasure of meeting lovers with the beauty of nature.

But then, not all poets are as sure about welcoming spring. Eliot’s famous line ‘April is the cruelest month’ is a reminder that spring can be disturbing to some. The feelings of memory and desire that it brings to an alienated person can upset his winter coziness. Nasir Kazmi also laments the plight of a man who is not very keen on spring.

Kisi kali ne bhi dekha na aankh bhar ke mujhe

Guzar gayi jars-e-gul udas karke mujhe

The parade of flowers all around can actually make a lonely person more depressed.

I think spring is a time of uncertain emotions. Summers and winters being clear in their intent and nature stay long, possess us completely, overwhelm us. Spring middling in-between is brief and ephemeral, therefore, invokes the feelings of ambivalence or something gone amiss. In a way, it sets you free to think and meditate over matters personal and others. In his ‘Lines Written in Early Spring‘, Wordsworth was probably in a similar state of mind

While in a grove I sate reclined,

In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts

Bring sad thoughts to the mind. 

And then goes on in that reflective mood to utter that most poignant line ‘What man has made of man’.

Poets are good at transcending physical events and turning them into neat packages of varied thoughts. Nostalgia, as a spring sentiment, takes a new shade with every other poet. Faiz, though sings ‘Bahaar aayi , but his memory is flooded alongside the beauty of his love with all those questions that have haunted him all his life. For him, it is time for re-assessing and re-investing in ideas that he has fought for.

Tere hamare

swal saare, jawab saare

Bahaar aayi to khul gaye hain

Naye sire se hisab saare.

Ghalib’s nostalgia takes him back to all those dead and beautiful people who lie buried under the earth. The spring harvest of flowers, to him, seems like the reincarnation of those lost souls. He also thinks about the fate of those ones who have not been able to show up over ground.

Sab kahan kuch lala-o-gul mein numayan ho gayi

Khak mein kya surtein hongi ke pinhan ho gayi

if Ghalib mourns the anonymous dead in spring season then Walt Whitman mourns the death of President Lincoln in ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed’. Lincoln was killed in the month of April and Whitman imagines his dead body being carried through the spring landscape where flowers bloom and yellow wheat stalks sway amidst the elegiac notes of a lonely wounded thrush. Spring combines for him a period of mourning and resurgence at the same time.

Spring is a dome of tainted glasses. Enjoy the colours or watch the world in its many-splendoured shades.

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The Turn of the Digital Wheel

Just the other day I was browsing internet for a new laptop. To my shock, actually a pleasant surprise, it was available for a paltry sum of Rupees forty thousand with all those heavy specifications like 1TB HDD, 4GB RAM and 2GB graphic card etc. For those who are still uninitiated to the digital world, one TB of memory in a computer is as many bytes as the integer one followed by twelve zeroes. It is the fifth higher unit after a grand of each byte, kilobyte, megabyte and gigabyte.

I tell this because I would like you to imagine the enormity of this size compared to what I bought some thirty years ago.

On return from UK in 1986 after my Master’s, I decided to buy a desktop as I had done all my projects on a computer and wanted to keep them digital for my colleagues to see, not of course without that mean feeling of causing in them some heartburn.

Before leaving for UK I had only a distant familiarity with a machine called computer, that too in its gigantic mainframe form which responded only to punched cards. It was such a pleasure, therefore, to find a compact little telly like machine that had a typewriter like keyboard that you could punch to see characters glowing instantly on a screen. Frankly, working on those BBC Basic machines which were very basic and primitive by today’s standards, I had slowly got hooked on to the ease of word-processing and made up my mind to carry one back home.

Near the time of my departure, Amstrad PCW series of computers had become very popular in UK and I decided to buy a 256Kb version – yes, all of 256Kb including 110Kb reserved for booting the system tools. It cost me £450, but I was mighty pleased with this precious cargo on my return flight, carrying its monitor as cabin luggage.

But my delight and pride received a severe hit when the custom babus did not allow me to take it out. According to the law of the time, all computing gadgets beyond 64kb were subject to scrutiny by defence authorities. It was only on the intervention of a senior functionary and a heavy custom duty that the computer was allowed out.  

The growth and expansion of computers in the last four decades has been simply amazing. But comparing the steep price I paid for that chit of a computer with the mighty goliath that we buy today at a throw away price, I cannot help saying ‘what more can you say for achhe din’.

But the real pleasure of having this mini giant comes not from its statistical outgrowth but from the massive and all-devouring appetite that it has developed. In terms of power, comparing a computer of 80’s with that of today is like comparing a horse cart with a modern day spaceship. Nobody in those days thought a computer along with its young progeny, the mobile, will completely take over our body, mind and soul. It has largely obliterated the need of a dozen other technical gadgets and has truly turned out to be the famous djinn of that magical lamp. You name the thing and lo! It is there and done.

If cars were to grow and diversify on the same lines, then today they would have learnt to fly and carry their passengers across oceans in minutes. They would have turned into our floating immunity bubbles that could land us safely at our tourist destinations, schools, offices, markets with a single voice command. Besides being brisk, they would have started guarding our homes and warning us of any impending disasters or break-ups in personal relationships.  All of this without tearing a hole in ours pockets as they would be running not on some oil or gas but some micro atomic mineral.

Computers’ digital revolution is the new age invention of wheel. It has not only added mobility to the human mind but also wings to their physical capabilities.  It is the digital wheel that runs life and its work and leisure machinery now. One year of pandemic confinement at home has brought this sordid truth or that incredible capacity to our notice that man can live all by himself provided they have this wicked majordomo by their side. Half the world survived isolation and this monster disease because they got everything not by moving their legs, but fingers. They shopped, socialized, conferred, traded, gamed, even made love on them. What some people call ‘new normal’ is actually a revised lifestyle of doing the same things but digitally – acquiring new modes of communication, getting used to the new idiom of what can be called ‘computerese’. Erin Bolen explains it much better in her poem ‘After this’

After this

I am going to ask people in real life

If they have got their mic on-

Are you on mute? I will say in class

Or bed  or Saintsbury’s. It will sound

Facetious but I’ll mean it. Are you on mute?

Did you need a moment to scream

Without being heard?

The best part is that you don’t need much learning to run these machines. They know everything and understand every human tongue. All of the education that we receive at school or college is already there on them, not only in its bookish but in the most practical oral form. Computers are more learner-friendly than teachers are and can teach life-skills more than schools do. Will that make schools redundant and formal education a not-so-necessary evil? Only time will. But it is a fact that if the wheel took several millennia to move us from the primitive to literate industrial world, then the digital wheel moved us from the world of literacy to the postmodern world of orality in just four decades.

Hail the keyboard; it has all the keys to open every lock.

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Merry Christmas – Indian Style

Christmas has been here since we don’t know when. But certainly, it is a few centuries old as the historians tell it came with the Europeans. Over the centuries, it has become a part of multicultural India and under the influence of various local festivals and rituals has acquired an Indian character that is distinct from other countries. Whereas some of the old European practices like week-long carol singing and mid-night mass are still followed in some parts of the country, there are a few other celebrations that have taken a distinct local colour.  

As pines or firs are not common in most parts of India, Christmas trees have been replaced with banana leaves or mango twigs and people even hang them on a string at their doors like most Hindus do for good luck. In many parts they enact the nativity scene on the lines of Krishan Janam Ashtami. Diwali too has a very strong influence on the celebration patterns in some communities where they choose to light clay lamps on the bannisters of their homes in addition to stars and christmas lights. In Daman and Diu, Christmas celebrations last for weeks and include dance nights like Navratri in the neighbouring Gujarat.

The most amazing celebration can be seen in Kochi, Kerala where Christianity has one of its oldest churches. Like Dussehra celebrations, it also erects an effigy, supposedly of Santa Claus, and burns it on the midnight of New Year eve. Also like Hindu beliefs, the act marks the end of evil and bodes for a new beginning.

Christmas in its Indian avatar has grown beyond Jesus and become a part of the larger Indian ethos in which all communities join in merry-making with the same zeal as they do in their own religious events. In recent years, it has shown in a remarkable manner in the way Christmas greetings and goodwill messages have been constructed and indianised.  

Jingle bails, jingle bails is not a mere spellings aberration. It rings in a new dawn and speaks of the cultural fusion that Indian celebration of Christmas shows. With greetings cards left behind, the new age messaging services like Whatsapp have drawn in other people not only in festivity but creativity too.

Of the scores of messages that I received in recent years, very few had the customary, hackneyed ‘Merry Christmas’ emblazoned on them. The communities around us have directly united with their Christian brethren by appropriating their signs and symbols to make Christmas celebrations their own.

Jingle bells is being sung in Punjabi Bhangra dance with beats of dhol and shouts of joy. X-mas becomes gurpurab, Christ is called Baba and the traditional English greetings turn into lakh lakh vadayian. In a popular comic video, guests are shown enjoying a Christmas dinner in a Punjabi restaurant with a proper band in attendance. On the tune of a carol, the band is singing a Punjabi song that exhorts the guests to have lassi, laddoo, samosa, peg sheg and a round of tandoori chicken, instead of the traditional wine, turkey and rum cake. 

Not only Punjabis, other communities too have shown equal enthusiasm to join in the celebrations. In one of the messages, a bearded sadhu had the Christmas tree painted in sandal paste instead of the three-finger tilakam on his forehead crested with the message Happy Christmas in Hindi.

In another image, friends brought both Lord Shiva and Lord Jesus together in the celestial serenity of heaven with Shiva hailing the other with a ‘happy birthday’ greeting and Jesus responding with ‘thanks Shiva’ in the true spirit of camaraderie.  With Photoshop and morphing becoming everyman’s tools, another friend draped the beautiful statue of Lord Krishna and Radha in the Santa Clause suit and hood, with Krishna singing carols on his flute. The Mumbai hackers portrayed the scene of a human pyramid in the construction of a Christmas tree with the star of the magi at the top substituted for dahi-handi. In another fusion meme, the scene of Lohri celebration around a fire was created by placing the picture of Mother Mariam happily cuddling the new-born Christ in her arms.

Santa Claus, the most enduring symbol of Christmas celebration comes in handy to all. A south Indian friend recorded a very south Indian song in a very south Indian English complaining he has been inviting the old man for forty years, but since he does not show up, he has given up hope and will, instead, invite the Pope next year. A north Indian band, all in Santa Claus tasselled caps, is merrily singing Punjabi carols to the tune of ‘mathe te chamkan vaal mere banrhe de’

Against these contrived photographs one real video indeed was touching. At Allahabad some devotees after taking a holy dip in the Triveni dressed themselves as a group of Santa Claus and performed the traditional aarti with a bouquet of brass oil lamps.

But the ease and humour with which the Punjabis adopted Santa Claus beats them all as they had their own legendary Santa Singh to match him. The most remarkable thing about the Christmas Santa Singh is that he does not want Santa Claus’ reindeer-driven sleigh for a day. Instead, he would have his own oxen-driven cart which lasts him the whole year and gives him opportunity to sing Jingle bails, jingle bails all the time.

But the same Santa Singh this year sends a very emotional message to his Christian brothers saying the original Santas are busy protesting, yet they wish them all merry Christmas and lots of love and joy.

We too wish the New Year brings our Santas back home and may the bonhomie between religions and communities continue to bring happiness to all.

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Learning Beyond Teaching

Recently Amitabh Bachchan reminiscing about his school days at Sherwood, Nainital adulated it for its rigorous discipline and general ethos that builds character in its students. Sherwood is a designer, high-end school, meant for a select few whose home environs are equally instructive and well-organised. Most of the people have high esteem for such schools and consider their wards privileged and fortunate. They are right, but unfortunately, lurking behind this consideration is also the feeling that the average, middle-class schools are no match to them; and perhaps lag far behind in nurturing the moral development of their students.  

Actually schools, their infrastructure, routine or discipline, I think, do very little to shape up the mind of the young learners in comparison to what they see and observe in teachers – their life-style, their day-to-day conduct, their attitude towards them and their approach to things, work in particular. Young kids are keen observers, more than what we think, and follow their teachers, consciously or otherwise, without letting anyone know. As young learners, they are more susceptible to gather impressions by eye than mind even when they get direct instruction in the form of explicit directions.   

I had a science teacher at my ordinary small town school who was short, dark, pock-marked and always wore a loose white pajama which was frayed at the bottom, speckled with grease stains because his old bicycle was rickety and didn’t have a chain cover. We used to make jokes about his bicycle, but respected him, for he was humble to the core and taught science not by the textbook but by drawing figures on the board buttressing his lectures with examples from everyday phenomena and data from sources usually unknown to us. He inspired the young science enthusiast in us to explore and discover not by coaxing but by indulging in the subject with love and interest. He taught us not by words but by actions – how to persevere, to see the science of life and, above all, not to judge people by their looks. If today, after 50 years of my departure from school, he still figures on my mind, it is because under his impoverished exterior I could see a man who never allowed his circumstances to interfere with this professional zeal.

When my school flashes upon my mind, it never reminds me of its poor infrastructure or lack of discipline. All it shows are the images of those of my teachers who in their stride, unmindful of their generosity, worked their way into the hearts of us students.  One of them was an exception, a rare grandfatherly figure with an astonishing blend of knowledge and selflessness. Dressed in old-fashioned pagri on semi-urban shirt-trousers, his frail, lanky frame will give the look of a self-absorbed old man. He rarely smiled, but never frowned or raised his voice. His tolerant look endeared us, but more than that his magical command over physics and mathematics. He would have us spread out in groups in the lawn after school hours and make us do physics numericals or geometry exercises from any books that we could lay our hands on. We had all the problems handling those sums, but he had none. He had a god’s computer fitted into his head which could do all the calculations silently and deliver us the sequence and answers in a jiffy without the help of a blackboard.

What did he get in return for this extra time spent on us? We never came to know as we were never asked to pay. But, did he teach me only physics or maths, of which I never made much use all these years? No, it was much more than that. He made me see how much and far a mind can conceive and retain, how knowledge can be applied to problem-solving, how learning can become a way of life, but most of all how inexpensive and satisfying it is to give what you have without expecting a return. I fondly miss teachers of his class as their tribe, of late, is fast becoming extinct.

We also had a teacher who showed us that art did not happen only in the drawing or painting classrooms. He taught us English but had slender fingers which danced on the blackboard when he wrote with a chalk. He could turn any capital letter at the head of a sentence into a beautiful figure. ‘S’ under his nimble fingers would suddenly become a swan or ‘T’ a table or ‘H’ a house. His lines were neat and his drawing effortless. I didn’t learn drawing from him, but realized that art is everywhere. Aesthetics is not the preserve of a select few who wield a paint brush or a chisel; it is germane to all acts of life. A gardener that tends to little plants, a cook that sets food on a plate, a housekeeper that manages your interiors can leave a mark of beauty on their work. Just the way, my Hindi teacher used to do, by turning every poem into a lyric. It didn’t matter to us what the poem was about as long its rhythm and performance enchanted us. Meanings can wait; let us enjoy the poem first. Instead of asking for a break from studies sometimes we would insist him to recite the poems. Long before critics told me, he made me realize that poems have to be read aloud to see their generic beauty.

In the business of teaching and learning instructional content cannot be packaged neatly or discretely. What is delivered is inseparable from who delivers it and how it is delivered. The academic parcel comes infected with moral and ethical virus of the teacher. The good ones pass on the healthy germs and others critical and sometimes deadly. With time we may throw away the contents of this parcel but the virus-effect stays in the form of our world view. 

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The Beauty Imbroglio

Waris Shah presents a most enchanting outlook on feminine beauty. He describes Heer in these eloquent terms; her brow has the shine of the Moon, her complexion is of the wine hue,  her eyes take after those of a musk deer; she has the sway of a royal elephant, lips of rubies, chin of an English apple, height of a heavenly cypress, neck of a crane, breast of transparent marble; cheeks like roses, teeth like a bouquet of jasmines, nose as the tip of a sword, tresses like a lump of snakes, fingers like tender beans and hands like leaf cups of chinar.

It is a rich description, full of literary tropes like similes and metaphors. But what is interesting to note is that whatever attributes of beauty he assigns to different body parts of Heer are found in the non-human world. All his comparable objects may be beautiful but they belong to the animal or natural world. And frankly, they don’t tell us of any quality, but only present a particular image or figure. For example, what feature of human beauty a lump of snakes or leaf cups of chinar signify? Imagine, if all those natural items were arranged in the form of a collage of human bust, would they make an astounding picture of beauty, something that we could call perfect or supremely attractive?

What then are the real attributes of beauty that are indigenous or specific to Homo sapiens?

For a long time, ancients and scientists have been trying to define ideal beauty, particularly the one that belongs to the female human form? According to them, there is something called a golden ratio that determines the parameters of a female face to be pronounced an ideal beauty. Taking a cue from Leonardo da Vinci’s images they confirm that a face that is roughly 1.5 times longer than its width is the most alluring one.

Notwithstanding the complexity of the issue, scientists expanded on this ratio and reduced measure of beauty to a statistical chart, a kind of mathematical formula that anyone can carry in their wallet for ready reference. Besides length of the face, the other golden proportions are: distance from hairline to the middle of the eyes and from there to the bottom of nose and from there to the bottom of chin is equal; the length of the ears is equal to the length of the nose and the width of each eye is equal to the gap between the eyes. No wonder, cosmetic surgeons love these bio-statistical equations.  

Some scientists even speak of such minute measures as the lines converging on the centre of chin from outside the cheekbones form an angle of 80o , the width of the mouth is not less than 50% of the width of face and the most important, the circumference of hips is 1.5 times that of waist. Remember the old times when the news about Miss World was accompanied by figures like 34-24-36. It is obvious the female torso was understood as an extension of her face. How very precise and perfect! And boring too at the same time. I wonder whether these bio-staticians are scientists or carpenters who look for such a fine symmetry in human form.

Scientific measure of beauty is heartless, feelingless and perhaps too superficial for those who look at human beauty beyond the physical shape and size. For ethical viewers human beauty lies not in curves, angles or skin tones, but in the quality of human conduct. They think our perception of beauty undergoes a change when we see someone whose visage is overflowing with the milk of human kindness, or whose mind and fingers weave a magical image or whose voice resonates with the symphony of human emotions or whose smile is beatific or intellect tantalisingly sharp.

These people consider human beauty ludicrous if it is merely skin-deep and purvey the idea of inner beauty. They presume themselves to be superior as they speak of higher truth that has the wisdom and morality of sages. But we know, not everyone agrees with them. To be more realistic, what has morality got to do with beauty? Most observers consider beauty amoral – a very special spectacle created by nature or man. To them, Jean Kerr gave a befitting reply: I am tired of all this non-sense about beauty being only skin deep. That‘s deep enough. What do you want- an adorable pancreas?

Looking for qualitative attributes of female beauty, historians collected data from different ages and concluded that human perception of beauty is fickle and changes with every progressing era. If ancient Egyptians preferred slender figures, then the Greeks adored the full-bodied, plump women. If Victorians fancied women with ample bosom and shrunken waist then the 20’s of last century patronized flat-chested women with boyish figure. The western modeling agencies always chose long-legged, athletic and somewhat curvy women as fashion icons. Doesn’t that leave the connoisseurs flummoxed and witless? Where exactly is the real beauty, then? I guess they will remain so, until they realise that in this big wide world diversity is beauty.

While they keep investigating the secret of ideal beauty with their statistics, metaphors or moral code, the average man, fortunately, is merrily content to find beauty in a much simpler way. If he is in love, then his woman is the best looking in the world; if he has fallen out with her, then she is the ugliest. There is only one woman who always remains beautiful to him and that is his mother.

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Everyone Loves Someone but Seldom Each Other

As a young learner when I was being initiated into reading I came across a book of fiction which kept me haunting for a long time in my youth as it had lots of quotes about love. I lost that book I don’t know when; the only memory that I had of it was that it was called Beyond Desire and it was about the life of a great western classical musician.

In late 80’s on a visit to England, I strayed into one of those Oxfam outlets which usually store discarded garments, household items and sometimes old books for the poor. On one of their dusty shelves, I found that book again and immediately grabbed it by paying that royal sum of 30 pence. Going through it again, I discovered it was about the life of that famous German composer Felix Mendelssohn.

Hidden in a conversation between Mendelssohn and Chopin was that great quote that had been buzzing in my head all those years and in a significant way had shaped my understanding of this world. Chopin in a rueful mood tells his friend ‘everyone loves someone but seldom each other’ and that was the reason he left Poland because he could not stand to watch his love loving someone else.

How many times have I found this little nugget of wisdom practical and an eternal source of peace and happiness? To me, it is like the infamous Murphy’s Law that has several corollaries. When I see my dog lolling his tongue and wagging his tail on me at the end of a tired day, I see that love is a one way road.  When I find myself besotted with someone beautiful, I can understand why the other person may not feel the same. Love can be a compulsion with one but not necessarily with the other.

It is best therefore to leave the business of loving others to others. You should mind your own love. At work or in family, I have discovered the one you love most may actually be interested more in another. If you grudge it, you will lose both, but if you ignore and continue to love, you may end up with a stronger bond and a more restful mind. In the long run, even one-sided love wins all.  

But people say love is reciprocal. Chopin taught me it is not always. If you believe in the former then you will end up with stories of revenge, rape, and acid attacks. Love hurts only when you expect an equal return. Or when you love too much. Love like any other emotion, anger, greed, jealousy, fear, has to be moderated. Love is an exclusive, highly personal feeling of one and it has to stay that way. Its expression, its terms of endearment, belong to the one who harbours it. The wonderful thing about love is that it is contagious and infects the other only when you keep your touch and breathe close to them. It may take its own time to make the contact and even if it does not, it gives you the warmth and the gratification that is innate to this emotion. Love by itself is a gentle and nourishing feeling. If you can’t realize it or are scared of the attendant pain, because of non-reciprocity, then you should take refuge in the following couplet of Daag

Dil mei rakhne ki baat hai gham-e-ishq

Is ko hargiz na barmala kahiye

Pain of love in your heart should stay

Never in public, should it find its say

Some people speak of selfless love. Is it when I see a Mother Teresa tending the wounds of an invalid? Or a parent toiling the night over their dear child or a wildlife activist trying to save a dying species? In a way, you can say it is, but actually, it is the same intimate urge, a kind of selfish act, of getting that feeling of warmth and satisfaction that the emotion of love bestows upon the lover. We love because we are programmed to do so and it gives its bliss more to the lover than the beloved. Not realizing it is what gives us pain and other harsh feelings.

Sufis show this in an ample measure. Their object of love is invisible, intangible, deaf, dumb and utterly incapable of any response. Yet they love him/her. Not because their beloved showers any special favours or privileges them to any unique pleasures, but because their love, on its own, can afford them all these experiences. Their love is unilateral yet it gives them the high ecstasy. Their beloved may be indifferent or at times cruel, yet their love finds consolation, but never a retreat. Mirza Ghalib speaks of it   

Hum ko sitam aziz sitamgar ko hum aziz

Na meharbaan nahi hai agar meharbaan nahin

I love his cruelty, he too finds me dear

If not kind, then nor is he unkind either

For ordinary mortals like us, Sufis may be far too an extreme example, but Chopin’s words are a good reminder that we cannot force our love on others or compel or expect others to love us the way we do. If it does not work, it is better to leave it at that. At the same time, if you continue, it will fertilise and nourish you.  

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Not By Eyes Alone

I don’t know why the world makes such a big thing out of eyes – about their expressibility and emotional quotient. Lovers, poets, writers, even commoners leverage their judgments on the basis of what they see in the eyes of the other. Lovers and poets see love, misery, storm, tyranny, magic, lightning in the eyes of the beloved. Some find in them the depth of a sea enough to drown themselves.  Mir in his best romantic mood says ‘mir un neem baaz aankhon mein sari masti sharab ki si hai’ (I find in those eyes full drunkenness of wine). Faiz is not much of a romantic poet, but he sums up the feelings of romance when he makes his lover say ‘teri aankhon ke siva duniya mein rakha kya hai’ (what else is of interest in the world besides your eyes). Poets are notorious for exaggerating things; we can pardon them for being liars for the sake of aesthetic effect.

But what about prose and fiction writers? I thought they were more realistic. Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre claims ‘The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter – often an unconscious but still a faithful interpreter – in the eye’. Wow! I had doubts about the credibility of eyes, but here is someone who makes them accessory to an entity which is, beyond doubt, doubtful. I was somewhat inclined to agree with the observations of these clever people as they speak about their own species – human beings; and may have instinctively developed some species-specific telepathic communication system. But the other day when I read Alice Walker reading the eyes of a horse, I was completely stumped. In her story ‘Am I Blue?’, this is what she says ‘I had forgotten the depth of feelings one could see in horses’ eyes’. Was she joking? No, she was very serious. In fact, she was going to identify herself with a horse.

I understand that human beings communicate in ways other than linguistic. We know of something called body language or kinesics where every part of the body participates in emitting signs that can be culturally and emotionally interpreted as communication. So I don’t have problems with non-verbal communication, but with the undue investment that some people make in the communicative ability of eyes alone.

Incidentally, the real eye, that dark or coloured ball in the eye is the only organ in the body that does not at all change as we age. Its size remains the same as we are born with. The only movement it can have is when it rolls sideways or when the pupil dilates or shrinks which we barely notice. The eye as a whole, of course, can undergo a few other changes; it can get moist, red or teary, the eyelids can flutter or narrow or shut or stay wide apart. With such a limited number of movements, I wonder how they can express the sea of emotions that we usually attribute to them, especially of the three-dimensional kind like depth. If eye alone was capable of such an array of emotions then the smiley makers must have drawn all those figures with eye only and named them ‘eyely’.

I think eyes tell only half the story or even less. The rest of your face and other parts of your body speak more loudly than eyes. To me, for example, the lips, the eyebrows and the nose are more articulate; and eyes work in conjunction with them to express an emotion, even if we discount the value that head, hands, neck, chest and other parts have. In fact, lips, nose and hands are more demonstrative in their movements and explicit in making messages. Smiley makers rightly chose lips and accented them for the variety of smiles or frowns they can make.  That is what makes me wonder why eyes have been burdened with such an enormous inferential load. Why couldn’t the poets see soul in the lips or depth in the nose? Even if beauty is the criterion, I guess the nose or lips are more prominent markers of it.  How many movie beauties we can recall for their shapely nose, luscious lips and high cheek bones! Not many for their eyes only. (Remember Manto’s description of actress Kuldeep Kaur and her prominent nose). Eyes largely look the same for all races, if you don’t consider the Mongloids; they too look different because of their drooping eyelids, not eyes. 

Eyes could be one of reasons, why I find Ghalib a more sensible poet than others. He is practical and stays with the obvious features of eyes. Barring only a couple of verses where he makes a passing reference to the magical or merry eyes, he steers clear of the emotional mountain that poets make of the molehill eye. In scores of other references to eyes, he speaks only of sight, tears, amazement, blood in the eyes, open eye etc.

Having said that I still think I may be one of those deprived homo sapiens who have been denied the faculty of gauging the real depth of eyes or the full implicature of their movements. God gave me eyes and sight, but probably forgot to install the insight chip.